Native advocates for the creation of Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah will begin meetings later this month with the administration of President Barack Obama after parting company with Congressional delegates who they say repeatedly disrespected their efforts.
The proposed 1.9-million-acre monument lies north of the Navajo Nation and the San Juan River, east of the Colorado River, and west of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. It encompasses all of Natural Bridges National Monument and the Manti La Sal National Forest, and parts of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It is adjacent to, and immediately east of, Canyonlands National Park.
The drumbeat to protect the landscape began six years ago with local Navajo and non-Native activists and quickly garnered the support of local rock climbing groups who liked the idea of protecting some of their favorite recreation areas.
The past year saw the formation of the Bears Ears Coalition, with representatives from the Navajo, Hopi, Ute Mountain Ute, Uinta & Ouray Ute and Zuni nations, which furthered those initial efforts to draw wide support from southwestern pueblos and tribes as well as the National Congress of American Indians.
“This is about healing. We’re not only trying to heal the land and its ecology, but people who relate to these lands,” said Eric Descheenie, advisor to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, and co-chair of the Bears Ears Coalition. “This is an indigenous vision that has inspired cross-disciplinary professionals to join on. We have non-Indians, we have all kinds of groups in the public and private sector. We want to elevate this discussion in a way that we can all celebrate.”
Members of the Coalition unveiled a formal monument proposal in Washington last fall that advances an unprecedented vision for collaborative management between tribes and the federal government.
Even in October, Coalition members viewed their proposal as a more protective alternative to the Public Lands Initiative (PLI) spearheaded by representatives Rob Bishop (R-Utah) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). In an appendix, they chronicled six years of tribal members’ thwarted attempts to work within the PLI process in both Utah and Washington D.C.—efforts that were met with polite indifference at best, and racism at worst. Still, the coalition made one more effort to work within the PLI.
“I was excited with the thought that we might be able to work within the legislative process,” recalls Regina Lopez-Whiteskunk, a member of both the Bears Ears Coalition and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council. But she said she was disappointed with the one-sided nature of the efforts.
“I had to take a step back and really think about how the federal government interacts with tribes,” she said. “When we pursue grants for the development of programs, we’re given deadlines and requirements, and we take them very seriously.” But Lopez-Whiteskunk said the PLI leaders consistently blew deadlines, never produced promised drafts of their own proposal, and failed to show up for scheduled meetings.
“When I started to see things kind of falling by the wayside, I began to realize, maybe the only way we’re going to be able to do this is through the executive order process,” she said.
Lopez-Whiteskunk said she owes it to her people, and her ancestors who once inhabited the Bears Ears lands, to forego the legislative path. Instead, the Coalition is pursuing negotiations with the Obama administration to secure a presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act.
“We have come to the conclusion that we have no choice but to discontinue these discussions,” reads part of the Coalition’s letter to Chaffetz and Bishop, dated December 31. “Our strenuous efforts to participate in the PLI have been consistently stonewalled. We have never been taken seriously.”
Chaffetz issued a statement in response to the letter, calling it “unexpected and confusing.” He chalked up his staff’s failure to show up at a scheduled December 30 meeting with the Coalition as a “scheduling conflict” and vowed to move forward with the PLI.
Bishop also responded, saying the coalition did not represent all interests.
“The Native Americans who live in Utah and who would be most impacted by a national monument do NOT support the proposal of this group,” he wrote in a statement e-mailed by his communications director, Lee Lonsberry. “It is clear this self-appointed coalition has an agenda that we need to reconcile with the wishes of those who actually call Utah home.”
Lonsberry added that the Navajo Nation’s Aneth Chapter, which lies closest to the proposed monument and within Utah, is against the proposal. But the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution in support of the Bears Ears proposal last fall, with unanimous support by delegates representing the Nation’s 110 chapters. Council Delegate Davis Filfred, who represents five chapters in Utah including Aneth, says the statements are unfounded and misleading. He pointed out that six of seven Utah chapters support the Bears Ears proposal.
“The Navajo Nation is supporting Bears Ears,” he said, “not only from the council, but from the executive side as well. I do support this.”
For his part, Descheenie took offense at Bishop’s characterization of the Bears Ears Coalition as what he called a “self-appointed coalition.”
“We don’t feel they respect the sovereignty of tribes,” he said.
Descheenie added that he’s proud of the coalition’s proposal and looks forward to earnest negotiations with the Obama administration.
“My hope is that when we take our ideas and match them up against the Obama administration’s expertise, our proposal will become that much better, and that it truly will become a model for collaborative management worldwide,” he said. “We’re hoping that people come to the table with positive hearts and fruitful minds, with an interest in figuring out how this can work.”
Lopez-Whiteskunk said she’s excited for an opportunity to showcase a great idea out of Indian country.
“I’ve been elected by my people, but now I have an opportunity to be a leader for many people,” she said. “This is about healing that doesn’t see colors or boundaries. It’s not just going to be a people’s movement of the Native people. It will be a peoples’ movement for all people.”
Anne Minard is a journalist and a law student at the University of New Mexico. She is working for the Bears Ears Coalition as a legal research assistant.